Mao museum helps keep legacy alive

Zhang Deben, a farmer in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, is an avowed admirer of Mao Zedong and an avid collector of Mao memorabilia, which he has been searching out since his early teens.

Zhang, 62, is also the founder and owner of the Mao Zedong Exhibition Hall at No 68 Changming Road in Xi'an, which honors the memory of the late chairman and China's other Communist pioneers.

The farmer has spent more than 10 million yuan (S$2.1 million) on the 5,000-square-meter museum, which boasts more than 300,000 exhibits. These include Mao memorabilia badges, copies of his quotations and mugs with the former leader's image.

Zhang opened the museum to the public for free on Dec 23, 2007, three days before the anniversary of Mao's birth, which falls on Friday. It has attracted more than 300,000 visitors over the past seven years.

Those visitors include students, Communist Party of China members, government officials, scholars, Red Army veterans, anti-Japanese fighters, and foreigners, museum staff member Zhang Chao said.

In 2005, Zhang Deben came up with the idea for a museum to showcase his collection of memorabilia of Mao and other leaders and to provide a venue to teach visitors about the history of China's leadership.

Zhang was born in the village of Yuedengge in Xi'an. When he was 8, his father died and the family did not have any money for his schooling.

"But the school waived the tuition fees and I received some support from the local government to help me complete my primary and secondary schooling. From that time on, I remembered the kindness of the Party and of Chairman Mao," Zhang said.

When he was 13, Zhang was given a Chairman Mao badge. He was delighted with the gift and started collecting more such items.

In 1979, when China started on its path of reform and opening-up, Zhang left his village and decided to start his own business. He learned carpentry and operated a steel and wood furniture factory in Xi'an, where he received his first paycheck.

He then went into construction work and rented out storehouses.

"That rental business allowed me to earn more than 2 million yuan a year, which helped me operate my museum without charging people and without financial support from the local government," Zhang said.

Whenever he took business trips around the country for his furniture factory, Zhang would look for Mao badges to add to his collection. As he got richer, he also bought other Mao memorabilia.

When the collection grew, he began thinking about building an exhibition hall to let others enjoy the pieces and remember the late chairman.

"The total collection on display here cost me more than 10 million yuan, but I think a person needs to do something socially meaningful if he gets rich," Zhang said.